Readers of The Post and other large daily newspapers recently have been assaulted by full-page ads suggesting that they secure a handgun as the most effective means of self-defense. The ads depict several different kinds of assailants -- notably muggers and rapists -- and ask, "Should You Shoot A Rapist Before He Cuts Your Throat?" or "How Much Red Tape Is Too Much Red Tape When He Threatens To Kill You?"
It should come as no surprise that these ads were paid for by the leadership of the National Rifle Association. When questioned about the purpose of the new campaign, an NRA spokesman explained: "The ad's message is, don't own a firearm if you don't want one, but don't let anyone deny you the right to own one if you want."
That would seem to be stretching it a bit. The real message in this campaign, it would appear, is that the only way you are going to prevent yourself from victimization is by getting a handgun and keeping it at the ready.
Leaving aside the many statistical inaccuracies and distortions presented in this alarming ad campaign, a number of things need to be pointed out.
First, guns alone are not the crime-proofing insurance the NRA campaign suggests. The police, from their own experience in dealing with guns, crime, and criminals, know the sheer lunacy of the proposition. Guns aren't used quickly, easily or without consequence.
I've worked with highly skilled and trained police officers who have failed to use deadly force when it was more than justified and appropriate. People tend to hesitate, even freeze up, in a life-threatening, traumatic situation. When an attacker sees a victim lift and aim a handgun, he is hardly going to wait to see whether there is any hesitation about using it -- he will most assuredly use his own weapon quickly. The police experience is that the consequences of such confrontations are often more serious than if the victim had no weapon.
(There is, by the way, often a severe emotional trauma associated with killing someone. Over 70 percent of all police officers who kill a person leave the force within five years because of emotional difficulties associated with the event.)
Second, the police experience also reflects the fact that guns pulled or just available during conflict often fall into the wrong hands. Last year 15 police officers, who were typically younger, stronger, and better trained than their attackers, were killed when they were disarmed and shot with their own weapon. Some 85 percent of all police officers who lose their weapon to an assailant are shot with their own weapon. If those best trained in the use of firearms, our police officers, are occasionally subject to this kind of violence, what sense does it make to encourage the public -- who do not get the same level of training in firearms handling and usage -- to get guns for self-defense purposes?
Third, law enforcement is not anti-gun. Police officers carry guns as a tool of the trade. Many of us are recreational shooters and hunters. We also, however, get a firsthand view of the carnage created by guns that get into the wrong hands and into the hands of the untrained.
The whole truth, to twist an interesting and familiar theme, is that guns won't protect people, people protect people. Citizens are not helpless against the rising crime rate, and the firearm is not the only way the public can protect itself. For those who are looking for better protection I suggest the following:
Instead of spending your money on a gun to put by your bed, install a phone there. Call the police if you hear a strange noise that you think might be an intruder. By doing so, you decrease the chances of killing your spouse or child -- something that happens all too frequently -- if they move around and make noises unfamiliar to you in the night.
Have adequate locks and other protective devices installed to keep intruders out.
Use basic precautionary measures to avoid making yourself vulnerable in the first place. Plan what you are going to do if there's trouble. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Organize your neighborhood to be alert to activities that threaten your safety and security. Where such organizations already exist, join them and do your best to keep them active.
Call your local police and ask for their guidance on crime reduction tips. They can provide you with personal protection and effective rape prevention techniques, for example, that would do much to protect you from crime.
Write to your elected leaders and demand that they spend the money for adequate police protection and to correct the flaws in our criminal justice system. Insist that public safety be a higher priority. Only 1.4 percent of total government spending goes for the provision of police services.
Citizens everywhere must reject the notion that more guns in our society will make us safer and should tell those who make any such suggestion to back off. The people who are pumping out this crazy, dangerous advice for public consumption -- and abuse -- are not the police, but the NRA. That, by the way, is the organization that fought against a ban on cop-killer bullets, that is resisting legislation that would outlaw a potentially favorite weapon of the terrorist -- the plastic gun, and that has identified publicly as its highest priority the repeal of laws that restrict the manufacture and private ownership of machine guns.
The writer is executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.